Educating entrepreneurs - can universities and incubators/accelerators learn from each other?

Grace McCarthy
University of Wollongong

Peter McNamara
University of Wollongong

Introduction and Aim
What is the best way to educate entrepreneurs? Is it through a university degree or an incubator/accelerator program? Both attempt to equip entrepreneurs with knowledge and skills that will enable them to succeed in their business ventures. Many receive government funding as governments around the world pin their hopes on entrepreneurship as a way of replacing some of the jobs lost through automation, lost to lower cost labour economies, or declining industries such as coal mining. There are however many different ways to teach entrepreneurship and universities and incubators/accelerators do not always share with each other.
The aim of this study is not to investigate whether university education programs at universities are any better or worse than those at incubators/accelerators but as a first step to compare the curriculum of the two categories of providers and to come up with some recommendations for encouraging interaction between the two, regardless of whether an incubator/accelerator is university owned, public sector, private sector, cross-sectoral or sector specific, with or without a social purpose.
Hence the objectives of the study can be defined as follows:
1. To identify the topics commonly included in the entrepreneurship education programs of incubators/accelerators and of university postgraduate programs;
2. To identify topics which are only or mainly taught at either incubators/accelerators or at universities;
3. To identify topics which warrant more attention in both categories of providers;
4. To identify other differences that may exist, e.g. in the profile of the educators or the approach to teaching and learning.

The study comprised desk research, based on publicly available websites and a literature review, combined with a pilot study of incubators/accelerators in the south east of Australia. The pilot study was conducted using a short online survey. The link was sent by email where there was an email address on the incubator/accelerator website. Where no email address was available, the link was included in a message on the incubator/accelerator website contact form. The email and the website message included information about the study to enable potential participants to make an informed decision about whether or not to participate. While the response rate was only 35% (7 of a total of 20 incubators/accelerators in the region), the results nevertheless provided some interesting comparisons with university postgraduate entrepreneurship programs as identified from university websites.

This pilot study found that both incubators/accelerators and university postgraduate programs include traditional business topics such as finance and marketing. Some universities tailored their standard units to the entrepreneurship context while others included generic business topics in their entrepreneurship programs. Incubators/accelerators included some topics that were rarely or only briefly covered in university programs, such as sales or intellectual property. As might be expected, university programs were typically longer and more complex than the programs offered by incubators/accelerators. Australian universities have to address the requirements of the Australian Qualifications Framework, for example requiring students to develop critical thinking and research skills. Universities were also more likely to include topics as sustainability and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The study also found that incubators often provided the same content and pitch training for social businesses as for other start-ups although start-ups presenting to social or impact investors might need to pitch differently. Furthermore encouraging all start-ups to consider the UN Sustainable Development Goal would help raise awareness of the goals and allow all entrepreneurs to make a choice of whether they could also contribute to the goals. Other differences include the profiles of the educators, with the trainers at incubators/accelerators often practitioners rather than trained educators, and the teachers at universities also being researchers, but also nowadays also required to have a qualification or some training as teachers.

Both universities and incubators/accelerators aim to help entrepreneurs to succeed. However their programs are very different. There is scope for both categories of providers to learn from each other and to share resources, particularly in the social business space. Finding ways to measure and communicate impact would be helpful to many start-ups. As universities start to unbundle their degree programs, they might also benefit from exploring micro-credentialling in conjunction with incubators/accelerators.